The Strange Case of Alan Gross (Excerpt)
Washington Report of Middle Eastern Affairs, May/June 2011
Alan Gross ... was paid half a million dollars by the State Department's Agency for International Development (USAID) to undertake a democracy promotion mission in Cuba. ... A State Department spokesman denounced the sentence and described Gross as someone dedicated to helping "the Cuban people connect with the rest of the world." Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), the USAID prime contractor that actually employed Gross, complained that he had only been engaged in giving "peaceful people access to the Internet." ...
... Gross, in his defense, claimed that he had been deceived by his employer DAI and had become a pawn caught in the middle of the perennially bad relationship between Washington and Havana. But how legitimate is his argument? Gross was given a great deal of money to carry out his task by DAI, which had him on their books as an "independent business and economic development consultant" as part of an $8.6 million contract from USAID. He falsified his visa application by indicating that he was a "tourist" when he was, in fact, being paid to carry out an assignment on behalf of the United States government. Signs at the Havana airport clearly indicate that the introduction of satellite phones into the country is illegal. As these phones can bypass local telephone systems, the Cubans believe, probably correctly, that they are frequently used to support espionage operations. They are also expensive, starting at $2,000 per unit. And, as it would have been difficult to smuggle the phones into the country avoiding Cuban customs inspection, it is believed that the devices themselves likely were obtained directly from the United States Cuban Interests Section in Havana, the local equivalent of a U.S. embassy. Gross also deceived his target audience. Few Cuban Jews were aware of his visits, but several who met him testified in court that they were angry because he in no way indicated that they were to be beneficiaries of a U.S. government program, something that they knew to be illegal and would have avoided.
Alan Gross was part of an ongoing American government effort to destabilize Cuba, a program which began at $2 million in the 1990s and surged to an estimated $45 million in 2008 in the last year of the administration of President George W. Bush. Though run by USAID, the program has been described as "secretive," and the end use of the project money was frequently concealed by giving it to Cuban-American organizations for further distribution to dissidents inside Cuba. Along the way, the "Cuban Democracy" project was suspended on several occasions by Congress in response to the watchdog General Accountability Office's allegations of widespread fraud and malfeasance. Nevertheless, in the current $54 billion State Department budget for 2011 there remains an allocation of $20 million to promote "self-determined democracy in Cuba." And much of the money will undoubtedly go to supporting Internet-savvy dissidents. A WikiLeaks cable originating in the U.S. Interests Section assessed local Cuban dissident groups as ineffectual, but promoted the "social impact" of bloggers, stressing the need to "open up Cuba to the information age" to encourage young Cubans to seek "greater freedom and opportunity."
Cuban government allegations that Gross was working for an unnamed intelligence organization are inaccurate, but they also miss the point, which is that organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) now do somewhat openly what the Central Intelligence Agency used to do clandestinely during the 1950s and 1960s. They are directed to promote democracy and frequently operate untrammeled by official policy constraints. Much of the turmoil that led to the wave of pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism was engineered by USAID and NED exploiting telecommunication technologies, leading some to describe the unrest as "twitter revolutions." Many countries, including Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak, consequently banned NED activity, leading to the establishment of training centers outside Egypt to educate visiting Egyptians in "democracy promotion." Gross was clearly part of the broader effort to enable dissidents to communicate with each other. ...
What Did Alan Gross Do in Cuba?
Reports Show Accused Spy Knew the Risks He Was Taking
By Paul Berger
Jewish Daily Forward, February 15, 2012
Alan Gross, the American Jewish contractor jailed in Cuba, has maintained for more than two years that he was guilty of nothing more than naiveté when he smuggled contraband electronic equipment into the communist nation.
But official trip reports he filed for an American government agency, revealed by The Associated Press on February 12, paint a picture of a man who knew the risks he was taking. “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic,” Gross warned in a report that filtered back to the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to AP.
When he was arrested, Gross, a resident of suburban Washington, was carrying a high-tech cell phone chip more commonly used by the CIA or the Defense Department.
American Jewish organizations that campaign on Gross’s behalf say that the revelations will not harm the fight to free the 62-year-old, who was jailed for 15 years in 2009 and is in poor health. “At this point, if you’re passionate about Alan’s release, these new facts, or supposed facts, just muddle the water more,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“The bottom line is, he remains a man who is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit,” Halber said.
The Cuban government has accused Gross of being a spy and of working to undermine it. Gross’s supporters say he was just a development worker trying to improve Internet access for the Cuban-Jewish community. USAID paid a subcontractor, who in turn funded Gross. The communist regime considers USAID’s mission in Cuba illegal so, according to AP, Gross used American Jewish humanitarian trips to the island as a cover for his work.
Bruce Yudewitz, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Florida’s Jewish Federation of Broward County, told the Forward on February 14 that he believed there was ”some connection“ between Gross and a single trip his organization took to Cuba.
The following day, Yudewitz said he could “not confirm or deny whether [Gross] made any connections” with members of the federation group.
“He didn’t travel with us, as far as I can tell,” Yudewitz said. “I don’t know who else was on the plane, or if he showed up at one of the places we went to visit.”
Though Cuba remains a dictatorship, the island’s Jewish community has lived relatively freely in recent decades. Cuban Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel and are able to practice Judaism. During the past 20 years, American Jewish organizations have built a relationship with the Castro regime that has allowed them to make regular trips to the island, bringing with them “humanitarian supplies” such as medication, kosher food and religious items.
“I’m hopeful that the latest details won’t harm the humanitarian work being done on the ground by Jewish organizations,” said Moishe Smith, a former president of B’nai B’rith International who has traveled to Cuba on such missions.
Steve Schwager, executive vice president and CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told the Forward, “JDC’s cultural and religious work with this community continues unaffected.” But just how Gross’s capture has affected the delicate relationship between the Cuban government and Jewish groups is difficult to determine. American Jewish officials and members of the Cuban-Jewish community must tread a fine line between telling the truth and not offending the Cuban government.
Gross was sent to Cuba under a $500,000 contract to work for USAID. In addition to using Jewish missions to Cuba as a cover, Gross even asked fellow American Jewish travelers to smuggle electronic equipment into Cuba and then give it back to him at his hotel, the AP said.
The cell phone chip found on Gross when he was arrested would have allowed a user to make satellite phone calls without being detected. Such activity seems to go beyond the picture painted by Gross’s supporters of a man interested in only helping Cuba’s Jews. Nevertheless, Jewish groups continue to back Gross.
“Our position has not changed, nor is there reason for it to change,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has campaigned on Gross’s behalf. “I have credibility in our government and the [Gross] family, and don’t have credibility just because an AP story appears. Let’s move on.”
Foxman insinuated that the AP report was based on misinformation put out by the Cuban government, a “totalitarian, antidemocratic, dictatorship” that “fosters and has fostered [international] anti-Semitism, which is an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people.”
“Why should I take [the Cuban government’s] word,” Foxman asked, “as opposed to our government, the secretary of state, members of Congress and [Gross’s] family?”
Halber said Gross was being painted as a “James Bond” figure so that he can be used as “a pawn” to secure the release of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents arrested in the U.S. in 2001 on spy charges. He said the increased publicity could work in Gross’s favor and that vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington would continue.